Catching Waves in Indonesia

Catching Waves in Indonesia

[Written on January 21, 2021, the following story has been reposted in tandem with the release of Lili’s new music video, Summer]

It has been 41 days since I left Indonesia, and my life has been forever changed. I feel calmer, wiser, more mindful and patient. Probably also because I’m finally pursuing what I’ve always wanted to do – music.

In retrospect, my timing and choices were perfect. When I left my first job last February 2020, I wanted to pursue music with my band, The Ransom Collective. My plan was to be a full-time musician and write songs with them while developing my sound in parallel as a solo artist. But I also wanted to explore the bamboo industry, and I managed to find an NGO in that space that required financial modeling. They needed me to work right away though, so I put music on hold and packed my bags for Jakarta and Bali thinking I’d be gone for a month.

One week later, lockdown happened almost all over the world, and the rest is history (literally).

I tried to go home when the news came out, but flights were getting canceled left and right. Somehow, I wasn’t too worried – I felt it would be safe and productive for me to be in Indonesia anyway. I just never thought I would stay so long (9 months to be exact).

I wasn’t working for that many months though. I took a break in between to recover my mental health, and in that time I managed to explore Rote, the island I ended up getting stuck in.

Rote is on the east side of Indonesia. To get there from Bali, you take a 1.5-hour plane ride to Kupang, the capital of province East Nusa Tenggara. From Kupang, you can either take a 2-hour boat ride or a 20-minute plane ride to Ba’a, the town of Rote.  From Ba’a, it is another hour to get to Nemberala, Rote’s main tourist area.

It was work that brought me to Rote. For awhile, that was all I did. But slowly, I explored the area around me. I opened up and became more social and learned to be independent. The break I took from work was to regain the energy I had lost from stress, and I picked up surfing as a way to heal. I also found my voice in music, and sometimes I would sing in the water.

My surf coach noticed, and told me he had a student like me who would sing to catch waves. But I didn’t need music to catch waves, just practice.

For awhile, my life was too good to be true. I would wake up, walk to the beach to check the waves, take my bike to my coach’s house, grab a board, and paddle to the waves. If I really had the energy, I would take the board I kept in my room and paddle from my beach to the waves. That would take about 10 minutes. I figured it was good training for my arms. And then I would go home, prepare breakfast, and figure out my day ahead.

There were many activities I wanted to do – kayak in the mangroves, sail and snorkel, meet people on the island, visit someone’s house, host a few friends, cook a certain dish, surf a specific spot… the list was considerably long, but I somehow managed to do everything with my friend, Di, in almost 1 month.

And then work beckoned, and I figured it was best to return to the Philippines and work from there as originally planned. So I held a joint birthday party with Di, booked my flight, organized a goodbye gig to perform a few originals and play some covers with the house band, and packed my bags for home.

As we all know, I didn’t end up going. My flight got canceled, and I figured I could just stay and balance my time working remotely. Because of that, I was able to explore Indonesia once the government lifted the restrictions on domestic travel.

I visited Ndao, Sumba, Lombok, and Soe. I went to Flores to check out the bamboo there, and revisited Bali for a few errands (ie. renewing my passport). Never in my life did I travel this much for this long, and during a time of a pandemic. It was scary at first to be away from everything and everyone I knew, but I found family in Rote.

Everyone in Rote is a character. I hung out mostly with the expat community there, but many of them have already been living in Indonesia for years. There were many Australians and Europeans, and most of them retired there, built a second home, or put up a resort. All of them were ocean people – be it surfers, sailors, spear fishers… and I gained a newfound appreciation for the water. It was lovely meeting people from different parts of the world with different backgrounds. I listened to their stories and learned much about the sea from them.

Surprisingly, I found myself very comfortable in the water. I grew up in the city, and mostly did physical activities inland, be it softball, mountaineering, biking, or running. I’ve been to the beach many times and sometimes even had trips with family to surf when I was a kid, but never did I feel capable of doing it independently or even attracted to the idea of living by the ocean. But it was a different story in Rote.

At first, I didn’t care to surf at all. I knew it from experience – either you have to be good at paddling or you’ll need an instructor to help push you – been there, done that, no thanks. But one day, Di decided to sign up for lessons at Nemberala Beach Surf School, and she gushed about how amazing the coach was, Ron, so much. After a week, I gave in.  

Di was right, Ron was amazing. He had a very zen vibe, and he was an excellent communicator. He grew up in the States playing baseball, and so he made softball metaphors for me to understand surfing better. Similar to batting, you don’t always go for every wave you see. You swing at a strike, and it is the same for surfing. They call it wave selection. And then there’s also positioning – you have to sit at a point where you can catch the wave. It’s like being on defense – you position yourself where you think you can field the ball. Then there’s also your stance on the board. Like batting, it’s key to swinging. When you catch a wave, you bend your knees, stay low, and maintain your balance.

I loved it. Suddenly, surfing felt like second nature. It was like my softball days all over again – my arms were getting bigger, I was getting darker, and I was engaged in a new sport. The water felt amazing, and the company was extremely fun. I surfed at Squealers, the spot where kids and foil surfers surf, and so it was relatively safe and fun even to catch party waves.

Later, I learned to surf more difficult waves. Ron took us out to T-Land, the main break, during a small day, and it was just Ron, Di, and I at sunset. The colors were amazing, and each wave that Ron pushed me to, I got better and better. I caught my last wave on my own, and I was stoked for days.

So I kept surfing. Almost everyday, in every condition, in different spots, on different boards… that was my strategy to improve. I had so many wipeouts, so many attempts. It felt like I wouldn’t ever get better, but I did. Suddenly, after 6 months, I wasn’t going out to improve. I was just going out to surf. I had no more fear, no more second guessing. I was confident (of course, not on those huge waves, but on fast waves sometimes even taller than me, I could surf them now). I couldn’t have done it without my partner guiding and spotting me, but I think my attitude and my comfort in the water was a big factor. The surfers on the island (both local and foreign) all noticed, and were impressed with my progress. I was just happy to be surfing independently, but I’m also glad to have made a good impression (somehow I felt like being the only female non-Indonesian Asian on the island made me an underdog, haha!).

So my life did change quite drastically. Now I seek to surf, and I feel at home in the water. I no longer shun the sun at sea, but embrace its warmth and the way it tans my skin. I can survive on an island and make new friends and be good company. I no longer need to live in the city (for I thought convenience and access mattered), but can instead be resourceful with food and live a simple life. The city is overrated, and life without instant gratification or a wide array of choices can still be enjoyable.

In the end, I am glad I didn’t pursue music full-time after I left my first job. Instead, I chose to work on a dream, and though that didn’t materialize the way I thought it would, I came back as a surfer with a handful of songs that will soon become an album. I am now pursuing my original plan to be an artist, and I cannot wait to share my songs – my stories – with you all.

Story by Lily Gonzales
To learn more about her stories and music, visit 

1 comment

  • Moppet Gonzales

    What a lovely story! Your dreams beckon…

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